Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

COP21: How We Make the Weather

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by Dominic Kotas, Copywriter at ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability and alumnus RCC editor.

So, after all the planning, speculation, and nervous anticipation, COP21 happened—and was generally seen as a qualified success. I was lucky enough to be in the “Climate Generations” areas (just next door to the negotiating zone) for the two weeks of the summit. When the agreement was announced, I took a break from my own wrap-up work to message my friends: “THEY GOT AN AGREEMENT!” It was hard not to feel, at least to some extent, that we had witnessed a significant moment in our planet’s history, and hard not to share the delight of the negotiators and the wider sustainability community.

For the first time, 185 nations committed to curbing the trajectory of current and future global greenhouse gas emissions and to limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, with the aim of capping global warming at 1.5 degrees. That in itself is something to be celebrated. The agreement shows that the entire world now recognizes climate change as a major issue, requiring a unified response, and it lays the foundations for making our societies greener, cleaner, and more sustainable.

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Flags over COP21 in Paris. Photograph: ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability.

That’s good news, and there are other good things in the agreement. But plenty of people have pointed out the bad news too. In the run-up to COP21, nations submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), stating the extent to which they believed they could cut emissions. If all of these INDCs were realized (which is far from a given), it is estimated that they would generate global warming of around 3.7 degrees Celsius. So before COP21, nations implicitly said that they can keep global warming to 3.7 degrees Celsius. Now they have agreed to limit it to 2 degrees Celsius, or even 1.5. How will that happen?

It is hoped that by meeting every five years and reviewing contributions, nations will be able to accelerate the pace of emissions reductions. That’s quite optimistic. As the history of climate change activism shows, having nations stick to what they agreed is hard enough, let alone getting them all to do much more. And will there be any sanctions if nations change their minds and decide to do less, or nothing? Not really. There will be accountability in some shape or form, but it looks like progress will rely on continued goodwill and cooperative attitudes.

This is where we all come in. One of the best things about the Paris agreement is its inclusivity. National governments have acknowledged that they can’t do this alone, recognizing stakeholders including local and subnational governments as key actors in the fight to tackle climate change. This echoes the INDC approach. The new climate regime is bottom-up: in the same way that global agreements have been driven by national contributions, national contributions will be driven by the efforts of cities, regions, NGOs, businesses and—above all—citizens.

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Panel in the Cities & Regions Pavilion. Photograph: ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability.

The Paris agreement happened in large part because enough people have shown that they care about climate change and have demanded that action be taken, from the protest groups from small island states who blocked oil tankers with their kayaks to the students at universities who pushed their institutions to divest from fossil fuels. National governments are there in part to reflect our collective desires. As Rebecca Solnit put it, “We complain about politicians spinning, rather than recognizing that this is exactly what we want a weathervane—or hey, a wind turbine—to do, or recognizing that it’s up to us to be that wind.”

In Paris, national governments swung towards action on climate change. But they will swing away from it if their citizens stop demanding action. COP21 is a beginning, but the momentum must be maintained, especially to bridge the gap between current pledges and the required emissions reductions. And the good news is, the more that we do, the more it encourages others. In my two weeks at the Cities & Regions Pavilion at COP21, I heard from scores of local leaders who have been inspired by the actions of other cities and regions. They have seen that climate action is possible, and they have joined the movement, making ambitious changes in areas including urban planning, disaster response, education, and housing. Once that feedback loop begins, the potential for acceleration is enormous.

Petitions, demonstrations, campaigns, t-shirts, articles, tweets, songs: in 2016, let’s add our own breath to the winds of change that have blown out of COP21, and help to keep our politicians pointing in the right direction.

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